'Christian' nations more free, report says

WASHINGTON (BP)—Countries with Christian roots are the most religiously free domains in the world, according to the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute in a forthcoming report.

The report ranked more than 100 countries according to the quality of religious freedom based on the country's religious background. The only countries to receive an ideal score were the United States and Estonia, both with Protestant backgrounds, and Hungary and Ireland, both with Catholic backgrounds.

The results of the report were announced July 9 in a briefing at the Hudson Institute in Washington. A six-member panel, which included Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, spoke on the importance of securing religious liberty in countries where such freedom is most violated.

"Our founding documents do not declare something that is an American truth," Land said. "It is a universal truth that we believe that all men are created equal and they are 'endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,' and 'among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'"

Panelist Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom, said religious oppression is most often found in Muslim countries with extreme religious parties, such as Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

"Radical Islam is probably the largest growing threat to religious freedom around the world, including in the Muslim world," Marshall said.

Panelist Zainab Al-Suwaij, co-founder and executive director of the American Islamic Congress, knows firsthand about religious oppression in Islamic countries. Born in Iraq under Sadaam Hussein's regime, the Shiite Muslim endured intense religious persecution before fleeing a country where, in 1991, Sunni Muslims were favored.

"As a person who was under this kind of lack of freedom practicing my religion in Iraq, I can feel and also understand how people have been suffering under these different regimes," Al-Suwaij said. "People are not aware of the suffering or do not care enough about the religious suffering of others to do anything about it."

Many Muslims in radical Islamic countries experience oppression because of their government's blasphemy laws, which implement punishment, including death, to any person who defiles the name of Muhammad.

Land commented: "The people who are suffering the most from the radical Islamist jihadism are followers of Islam who refuse to knuckle under to this particularly virulent brand of ideology that is being propagated in their name."

The panelists cited the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a standard that all countries, regardless of religious affiliation, should uphold. Adopted by the United Nations in 1948, the declaration obligates the international community to treat its citizens humanely, which Land said should also apply to radical Islamic countries.

"If a government wants to declare that Islam is the official religion of that country, as long as they democratically choose to do that, that's their choice. We don't have the right to say that they can't do that," Land said. "But we do have a right to say that there is a universal freedom, a universal right, a freedom of conscience, a freedom of belief, a freedom to change one's faith and to practice one's faith, and that cannot be denied to citizens in countries that want to be a part of the civilized community of nations."

The Center for Religious Freedom report also found that countries with the least religious freedom were the most likely to suffer economically, naming Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Sudan as examples.

Marshall said the survey results indicated religious freedom as the missing link for economic growth in religiously oppressed countries.

"Now we have proof that closed religious systems foul economic development and actually stunt economic growth," Marshall said. "Closed economic systems are unkind or worse to religious segments and practices. You need both to sustain human flourishing."

In echoing Marshall's observations, Land cited comments by the late Pope John Paul II, saying, "Religious freedom or soul liberty is the freedom without which all the other freedoms are meaningless. This is the deepest longing of the human soul. I think it shows that when people are free in one area it buttresses freedom in other areas, and the most important freedom is the freedom of conscience."

The panelists did not mention a new charge that China had expelled more than 100 foreign workers from April to June because of alleged illegal religious activities. The China Aid Association, which issued the report July 10, said the effort is suspected to be part of the government's campaign to restrict Christian missions prior to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

The panel also included Michael Novak, director of social and political studies at the American Enterprise Institute; Brian Grim, a senior research fellow in religion and world affairs at the Pew Forum; and Theodore Malloch, chairman of the Spiritual Enterprise Institute.

The full report, titled "Religious Freedom in the World 2007," will be released in early 2008. The final manuscript will include surveys, background information, essays and appendices on the religious freedom trends in 102 countries.

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